DUBAI — Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, seen by campaign groups as Iran’s highest-profile political prisoner, was freed on Wednesday in another sign that hard-line policies may be easing under a new president.
Other prisoners linked to the mass protests after the disputed 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also were freed, opposition website Kaleme reported, raising hopes among activists for a possible reconciliation between Iran’s conservative religious leadership and its pro-reform critics.
Arrested in September 2010, Sotoudeh was serving a six-year term for spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security.
“I am free from prison today and I am glad but I am worried for my friends in prison,” Sotoudeh told CNN by telephone from Tehran, adding that she was “free forever,” not on temporary release, and planned to resume her legal career.
Sotoudeh, 50, who defended journalists and rights activists including Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, went on a hunger strike for nearly 50 days last year to force authorities to repeal a travel ban on her young daughter.
With fears that she might die, the United States was among the countries criticizing Iran and demanding Sotoudeh be freed.
Also on Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a television interview that his government would never develop nuclear weapons and that he has full authority to negotiate a nuclear deal with the West, NBC News reported.
Speaking to the U.S. network at his presidential compound in Tehran, Iran’s new president also said the tone of a letter he had received from President Barack Obama, part of a recent exchange of messages between the two leaders, was “positive and constructive.”
Rouhani’s comments came just six days before he will be in New York to address the U.N. General Assembly, a speech that will be closely watched for fresh diplomatic overtures.
“It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future,” Rouhani said, in another sign that he may be seeking a thaw between Iran and the West after years locked in a standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Rouhani, echoing what Iranian leaders have said before, was quoted by NBC as declaring that his government would “never develop nuclear weapons” under any circumstances.
The United States and its allies suspect Iran is seeking bomb-making capability despite Tehran’s insistence that its nuclear program has only peaceful aims.
Rouhani, who took office in August, also said he had full authority in nuclear talks with the West.
Questions remain about how much bargaining room Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will give his negotiators, whether in secret talks with Washington or in multilateral discussions with major powers.
But comments this week by Khamenei, a staunch promoter of Iran’s nuclear program, about the need for “flexibility” suggests a new willingness at the highest level to explore a compromise solution to Tehran’s dispute with the West.
Since Rouhani was elected president in June, the centrist cleric has called for “constructive interaction” with the world, a dramatic shift in tone from the fiery anti-Western rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Obama said in a television interview on Tuesday that he is prepared to test the willingness of Rouhani to discuss the nuclear issue. But U.S. officials remain wary, insisting they want to see actions, not just words.
Rouhani won a surprise victory over hard-line rivals in June, pledging to ease political and social restrictions, and his supporters have called for the release of political prisoners.
Kaleme said one of those released on Wednesday was Mohsen Aminzadeh, a former deputy foreign minister under reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, who supported reformist presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi in 2009.
Feizollah Arabsorkhi, a former deputy minister of commerce under Khatami, was also released, the website said. The total number of prison releases was not immediately clear, but various news reports mentioned seven other women and three men in total.
Sotoudeh’s release comes one day after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he supported “flexibility” in Iranian diplomacy, a rare signal that he might endorse a shift in Tehran stance in its problematic relations with the West.
“It’s a humanitarian gesture and also it’s a smart political move, mainly because of the signal it sends to the U.S. Congress, which still cares about the human rights conditions in Iran,” Yasmin Alem, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, said of the prison releases.
“But I wouldn’t read too much into at least this initial release of political prisoners.”
Authorities, who transferred Sotoudeh from Tehran’s Evin jail on Wednesday evening to her home, gave no reason for the release and offered no details on who had ordered it, Sotoudeh’s husband Reza Khandan told Reuters.
“They just told her: ‘You’re free, go,’” he said.
When asked if her release signalled a “new day” for Iran, Sotoudeh told CNN: “It is soon to say new day because we have many political prisoners in prison, but I hope this will be a new day.”